The first time I heard my daughter's therapist mention the word sensory diet my mind immediately thought - the elimination of foods to assist in behaviour management. Great! Another thing to throw into the mix to make life just that extra bit challenging.
But to my delight it had nothing to do with a diet and didn’t involve any type of restriction actually. Turns out it was more about adding things rather than taking away.
So… What is a sensory diet?
Basically it is a carefully planned program or schedule that provides your child with tools and activities at different intervals throughout the day to support regulation.
Reality is we all need and acquire sensory input throughout the day to help us function, to keep our mind calm and to subconsciously meet our daily needs. Perhaps you tap your fingers when you are waiting for something, stretch your body in between long periods at your desk at work or take deep breaths when you are anxious about something.
Pretty simple really. It becomes second nature to incorporate these types of rituals or daily patterns of movements effortlessly into your day.
But what if it in fact wasn’t that easy? What if your body and mind couldn’t instinctively just do this?
This is where a sensory diet is quite an effective tool to assist children with autism in feeling regulated throughout the day.
A sensory diet is designed specifically for your child by an occupational therapist with input from family and teachers. Aspects like timing, frequency, intensity and duration of different sensory inputs are decided and then implemented into home and school life. Incorporating a schedule of sensory input (diet) into day-to-day activities assists with daily regulation.
A sensory diet can be used to address the following challenges;
-Poor social interactions
-Sensory seeking behaviours
Benefits… There are many benefits to implementing a sensory diet into your child’s day.
-Assists with sensory needs
-Helps them to feel less anxious
-Helps support focus, attentiveness and interactions
-Assists in helping them to feel more in control
-Reduces sensory defensiveness
-Helps to create calmness when feeling overwhelmed
No sensory diet will look the same as we all have different sensory needs; it’s about finding out what type of sensory strategies and input is required during different times of the day.
Perhaps your child benefits from minimal noise in the morning, movement before transitions, and deep pressure before bed. Therefore, some of the sensory strategies in your child’s ‘diet’ may look like this;
-Using noise cancellation headphones in the morning to ease into the day
-Incorporation of swinging before brushing teeth or an obstacle course when they get home from somewhere.
-A massage before bed.
Simple activities that may have a significant impact in your child’s behaviour throughout the day, key word being ‘may’. It doesn’t necessarily mean you add a few sensory activities and bam all is well in the world – behaviour challenges gone, and regulation is restored. It is an approach to support and ease day to day emotions and sensory overload.
Sensory diet activities
An occupational therapist will undertake a sensory diet checklist and together you will develop sensory input activities to incorporate into your child’s day. There are many different types of activities that can give your child the sensory input they seek.
Vestibular activities – movement and balance
-Upside down (handstands, rolling)
-Changes in direction
-Rocking back and forth in a rocking chair
-Rough and tumble play
-Changes in speed
Proprioception activities - providing intense input into muscles and joints
-Pushing and pulling heavy objects
-Weightbearing activities (crawling/pushups)
-Deep pressure (tight hugs)
-Jumping on a trampoline
Tactile activities – touching and feeling
-Fidget tools (stress ball)
Auditory activities – hearing and listening
-noise cancelling headphones
-listening to music
-playing a musical instrument
-Toys with noise
-Dot to dot
-Toys that light up
-Sucking on ice
Just like we eat balanced foods throughout the day to keep us feeling fit and healthy, or petrol is used to keep a car running, batteries needed to keep things working; We also need a balanced amount of sensory information to work well.
A sensory diet can assist children with autism in managing behaviours, self-regulation and easing overwhelming feelings and anxiety.